Las Maravillas 8-year-old boy learning to use “Iron Man” arm
LAS MARAVILLAS—You can hear the soft whir of the motors from across the room as Christian Martinez opens and closes his left hand.
The glowing white button on the back of his hand and the signature “Iron Man” maroon and gold color scheme complete the picture, driving home the point that Martinez might not be our typical third-grader.
As he stuffs an Oreo into his mouth using that same high-tech hand, you realize he’s very much a typical 8-year-old boy.
When Sunny Martinez was 11 weeks pregnant with her third child, doctors told her there was a problem. A scan at 12 weeks showed the all the limb buds developing but one — the left arm.
“They thought it was a serious chromosomal defect,” Sunny said. “I was told, ‘this pregnancy will take care of itself.’”
Chromosomal testing at 14 weeks into the pregnancy revealed the truth — there were no defects. The baby — Christian — would be fine except for the fact that his left arm wouldn’t be fully developed.
“Between that or something worse, we were fine,” Sunny said with a laugh.
Christian was born with what’s called congenital amputation, meaning his left arm didn’t develop further than his mid forearm for some reason. Sunny said doctors sometimes know the cause of the amputation, but in this case, couldn’t say specifically why.
“They said there may have been a blood clot that stopped the development, that could have stopped the development of the entire fetus,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, researchers estimate about one in every 1,900 babies is born in the United States has a limb reduction, which means part of a limb, either upper or lower, does not fully form during pregnancy.
Just before Christian’s birth, Sunny and her husband, Antonio, connected with the Lucky Fin Project — named as an homage to the main character in “Finding Nemo” — a support network for parents with children who have limb differences.
The organization’s motto speaks for itself: “Ten fingers are overrated.”
“We met a lot of people, some of them here in our own community,” Sunny said.
Christian’s arm is often noticed, and his mother said they would both rather people approach them and ask questions, rather than stare and whisper.
“The kids he’s known for three or four years are used to it,” she said.
While Christian’s arm makes him a little different, he’s made connections with people in the spotlight who are like him. He has an autographed picture from MMA fighter Nick Newell, who also has congenital amputation of his left arm.
When Christian began crawling at 6 months, the Martinez’s began the process to get a prosthetic arm for him.
“I was worried about his balance,” Sunny said, “but it took so long by the time we got it, he didn’t take to it.”
Last year, the family heard about Open Bionics, a relatively new company based in the UK that makes the world’s first medically certified 3-D-printed bionic arm.
Called the Hero Arm, the prosthetic arm has multi-grip functionality, and what the company calls “empowering aesthetics” with its swappable covers. The Hero Arm comes with one set of free covers, and customers can choose from a wide range of designs, including “Star Wars’” BB-8, Marvel’s “Iron Man,” Disney’s “Frozen” and video game series “Deus Ex.”
Like something out of a comic book, Christian Martinez, 8, shows off his Hero Arm, a bionic arm 3-D printed by British company Open Bionics.
According to Open Bionics’ website, each Hero Arm is custom-built using 3-D printing and 3-D scanning technologies. Special sensors within the arm detect muscle movements, meaning the wearer can control the bionic hand with intuitive life-like precision, and is able to lift up to a little more than 17 pounds.
The custom Hero Arm made by Open Bionics that Christian Martinez, 8, wears is the three motor version, with a single metal wire “tendon” in the index and middle fingers, which means the will always move together. The four motor version has two “tendons,” allowing the fingers to move independently.
The arm has multiple easy-to-select grips giving great user control that can be reconfigured to the wearer’s preferences by their prosthetist.
Using the glowing button on the back of his hand, Christian, a student at Belen Family School, can cycle through four different grips, depending on the need.
One he used almost immediately after getting the arm was the freeze mode, what allows the hand to be held in a static position.
“We went to Blake’s and he was able to hold his burger in one hand and his cup in the other to drink,” Sunny said. “To use both hands.”
While the arm is very intuitive and works with Christian’s natural muscle movement via two internal sensors that detect when he flexes and contracts his arm inside the unit, Antonio and Sunny say there’s still a learning curve.
“He’s learned to do things a certain way,” Sunny said. “So he’s learning to use this to do every day things. It’s a tool that he will have to decide if it benefits him. Is it faster to zip up his backpack like he always has, or get the arm put it on and position the hand?”
The arm is slightly longer than his right arm, and there’s room for Christian’s left arm to grow, giving the Hero Arm a usable life of three or four years.
Before he got the custom Iron Man covers, Christian Martinez’ prosthetic arm was a simple white and black. Here he demonstrates one of several grips the arm is capable of.
There are activities the arm immediately improved, such as riding a bike. Now that his limbs are basically the same length, Christian was able to get rid of the training wheels and balance himself while riding.
He’s also thinking about other things he can do.
“Like hammer a nail. Or use a bow and arrow,” Christian said.
While the new arm makes things like munching on an Oreo cookie and helping fold laundry easier, it still has some limitations — it’s not quite deft enough to manipulate Christian’s numerous Legos.
An occupational therapist is helping him use the arm better for daily tasks, Sunny said.
Christian Martinez, 8, was born with a congenital amputation, which means his left arm didn’t fully develop. Last fall, he got a Hero Arm, which is powered by state-of-the-art motors.
“I just want him to give this his best effort to see if he wants to use it for the rest of his life,” she said. “I hope he figures out if it’s a useful tool.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.